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Malaysian timber giant Samling takes conflict over logging activity to court

  • Plywood company Samling Group has filed a $1.18 million defamation suit against an Indigenous-led green group in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo.
  • The company says its business has been harmed by web posts in which advocacy group SAVE Rivers alleges the company failed to properly secure free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous communities in and around forest concessions.
  • SAVE Rivers plans to challenge the lawsuit, the organization’s lawyers say.
  • While the lawsuit is pending, the Malaysian Timber Certification Council has halted it review of conflicts between Samling and several Indigenous groups in Sarawak, saying the issues raised in the review are too close to the claims that will be argued in the lawsuit.

A Malaysian timber certification authority has halted its review of a conflict between Sarawak Indigenous communities and a forest license holder after the plywood company Samling Group filed a $1.18 million defamation lawsuit against a Sarawak-based green group that has campaigned against the company.

SAVE Rivers, an Indigenous-led civil society group, and four of its leaders are facing a defamation suit from Samling Group alleging the company’s reputation has been maliciously damaged by SAVE Rivers’ online posts.

Speaking on behalf of SAVE Rivers, Simon Siah, partner in Sarawak state law firm Simon Siah, Chua and Chow Advocates, said the group would contest Samling’s claims, but he couldn’t provide more information about the group’s defense before it’s filed publicly.

Siah said his clients would file their defense publicly before Sept. 6, and predicted Samling would likely respond before the case reaches trial.

“Of course, we will definitely challenge this suit,” he said. “We will fight all the way together with SAVE Rivers and all its directors.”

Old trees of the rainforests in Sarawak. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

In its lawsuit, Samling took issue with seven articles published by SAVE Rivers between June 2020 and March 2021, which allege the company failed to consult Indigenous communities in and around two concessional forests and had further logged in areas that were part of Indigenous land. The company says SAVE Rivers was acting with malice against its two of its subsidiaries, Samling Plywood (Miri) Sdn Bhd and Samling Plywood (Baramas) Sdn Bhd, which have licenses for logging in the Gerenai and Bakia areas respectively.

Samling Group argued that SAVE Rivers intended to “humiliate, degrade and disparage” its two companies and put them under “baseless, unjustified and unwarranted scrutiny by the world at large” that harmed its business, without detailing specific losses. The company is seeking 5 million ringgit ($1.18 million) in damages.

In its court filing, Samling further said that SAVE Rivers “caused a complaint to be issued on its behalf” to MTCC against the company in May, while Samling was demanding the Indigenous-led organization apologize and take down its stories.

Samling did not respond to questions provided by Mongabay, instead sharing a response to the media from August 13. Within it, the company emphasizes that it has “satisfactorily fulfilled the requisite certification requirements” and says that it made efforts to reach an amicable solution with Peter Kallang, SAVE Rivers’ director, before filing the suit.

The company also says the timing of the suit is not indicative of bad faith on its part. “The date for the filing of the suit was a result of a one-year process undertaken by Samling to find an amicable solution to the issue,” Samling said in a statement. “It was a culmination of our continuous efforts to reach out to SAVE Rivers – efforts that were rebuffed by Mr. Peter Kallang.”

Siti Syaliza Mustapha, senior manager of forest management units for the MTCC, said the council had been trying to organize a mediated conversation between Samling and SAVE Rivers. The council held one meeting between the parties amid on-and-off COVID-19 restrictions, but Samling decided to file its lawsuit on June 21; under Sarawak law, parties must file a defamation suit within one year of an allegation being published, and the first article that Samling contested was posted June 23, 2020.

“It’s really unfortunate we were not able to prevent such matters to escalate to this level, but we understand it’s the right of the company to protect their own interest,” Syaliza Mustapha said.

Peter Kallang (second from right) along with other members of SAVE Rivers on an inspection trip in Baram. Photo credit: SAVE Rivers.

Samling’s decision to file a lawsuit against SAVE Rivers further forestalled complaints against the company filed with the MTCC by two other NGOs.

In their complaints to the MTCC, Keruan and the Generai Community Rights Action Committee, both Indigenous-led groups, alleged Samling’s method of disclosing impact assessments did not allow for their communities to be properly informed. According to a statement released Aug. 13, the MTCC had sought response to these complaints from Samling as well as from SIRIM QAS International, the auditor responsible for certifying the project. According to the MTCC, SIRIM QAS responded while Samling requested an extension because of the lawsuit.

The MTCC’s dispute resolution committee decided the concerns raised by the two Indigenous organizations were too close to the claims about Samling that are to be argued in the defamation suit, the statement continued.

Keruan CEO Komeok Joe, who received a letter from the MTCC Aug. 7, would not comment on it yet, saying he was working with the organization to write an official response.

In regard to Keruan’s complaint relating to Samling’s Ravenscourt plantation, the MTCC’s Syaliza Mustapha, said the organization couldn’t comment on the company’s operations, in part because of the lawsuit and also because it’s the auditor, rather than the MTCC itself, that can flag issues with a certified plantation’s operations.

However, Syaliza Mustapha noted the organization could address at least one aspect: the mechanism by which Samling disclosed its environmental and social impact assessments to the Indigenous communities.

SAVE Rivers protests against the logging activities of plywood company Samling Group in Sarawak. Photo credit: SAVE Rivers.

SIRIM QAS had also flagged this as a “nonconformity” in its assessment, so the MTCC will monitor this issue as auditors reassess Samling’s Ravenscourt and Gerenai forest management units, which will happen later this year barring COVID-19 restrictions, Syaliza Mustapha said.

“Auditors will have to go and check and ask other communities if they feel they were consulted,” she said. “They’re not the only people there, which is why we have to be fair and let the auditors who are doing fieldwork meet all the different people.”

Banner image of a logging truck in Borneo by Rob and Stephanie Levy via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Correction: The article previously said that the court filing claimed that SAVE Rivers filed a complaint to the MTCC. The complaint says it “caused a complaint to be issued on its behalf.” The previous version also said the MTCC complaint was filed on May 11. SAVE Rivers on May 11 issued a “holding response” to say it needed more time.